Michael Schaub

There aren't too many American authors for whom the publication of a new book is a bona fide literary event, but Allan Gurganus is one of them. The North Carolina author took the book world by storm in 1989 with his debut novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which became a massive bestseller and spawned an Emmy-winning television miniseries adaptation. Only four books followed after that.

Kevin Barry has never shied away from the dark side. In books like City of Bohane and Night Boat to Tangier, the Irish author has turned his eye to gangsters, drug smugglers and other assorted criminals, both petty and felonious. But he's never descended into hard-boiled cliché — while some of his characters boast a kind of tough-guy swagger, he's just as interested in the softer specimens of humanity, and you always get the feeling that there's a touch of the romantic hiding just beneath the surface of his fiction.

The narrator of Manuel Vilas' novel Ordesa wastes no time telling the reader what kind of psychological space he inhabits. "I've been a man of sorrows," he says on the book's first page. "I've failed to understand life ... It pained me to talk to others; I could see the pointlessness of every human conversation that has been and will be."

"I believe in expecting light," says the unnamed narrator of Ellen Cooney's new novel. "That's my job." More specifically, the 36-year-old woman's job is as a chaplain at a medical center, offering solace and a friendly ear to the patients in the hospital, some in grave condition, some not.

It didn't take Bryan Washington long to become a literary star. The Houston author took the book world by storm last year with his debut short story collection, Lot, a love letter (or something like it) to his hometown of Houston that received rave reviews from critics — including former President Obama, who called the book one of his favorites of the year.

In "Smartening Up," the first story in Aoko Matsuda's collection Where the Wild Ladies Are, the narrator reflects on her dissatisfaction with the way she looks. She has too much body hair, she thinks, and that's why her boyfriend left her. In her estimation, the breakup "happened because my arms, my legs, and other parts of my body were not perfectly hairless — because I was an unkempt person who went about life as if there was nothing wrong with being hairy."

Anyone who's even vaguely familiar with Jimmy Carter has heard the assessment of his career that's become something of a political cliché: His presidency was largely a failure, but he's the best ex-president the country's ever had.

Like many well-worn bromides, there's a grain of truth to it: He left the Oval Office with dismal approval ratings, but in the 40 years since, he's developed a reputation as one of the country's most beloved humanitarians.

If you're of a certain temperament, it's tempting to think that the only people who aren't going to lose hope in the world by the end of the year are the people who lost hope in the world long ago.

The pandemics of coronavirus and hate show no signs of abating, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that we'll be unable to repair the damage we've done to our environment. For many of us, 2020 is the ultimate year of despair.

When civil rights activist and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia died last month, so did a big piece of America.

Kazu, the narrator of Tokyo Ueno Station, had hoped that his death would bring him some rest, some sense of closure. The man led a life marked with hard work and intense pain; he spent his final years homeless, living in a makeshift shelter in a Tokyo park. But when he dies, he finds the afterlife — such as it is — is nothing like he expected.

Even those with the most casual familiarity of American history know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just weeks after his second inauguration as U.S. president.

But not many are aware that if a group of Maryland white supremacists had their way, he would have been killed before he ever had the chance to set foot in the White House.

These are deeply weird times, and especially so for Emily St. John Mandel. The Canadian novelist is publishing her latest book just as the literary world has again become obsessed with her last one: Station Eleven, her 2014 novel about a world devastated by a deadly virus. It's a brilliant book (and one that even Mandel thinks you should wait a few months to read).

Northern Irish author Anna Burns published her first book in 2001, but she wasn't well known outside of the U.K. until 2018. That's when her third novel, Milkman, hit bookstore shelves to near universal acclaim. Critics were impressed by her unusual narrative technique and dark sense of humor, and the novel went on to win the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

There are countless books about World War II, but there's only one Erik Larson.

The author is known for his fascinating nonfiction accounts of subjects ranging from guns to hurricanes; his best-known work, The Devil in the White City, told the story of the 1893 World's Fair and notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes. Over his career, he has developed a reputation for being able to write about disparate subjects with intelligence, wit and beautiful prose.

Rachel, a librarian in Brooklyn, hasn't had the best luck with men. "I'd dated inadvisably before," she admits, "the long-distance architect, the married whiskey distiller, the homeless freegan." But when she sees a beautiful young man lingering at her bus stop, she's hopeful he might be the one to reverse her string of bad luck. Thomas, it turns out, is her perfect match — or he would be, if only he weren't dead.

In a fairer ⁠— or at least weirder ⁠— literary world, Stephen Wright would be as famous as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. He's has only written five novels since his debut in 1983 with Meditations in Green, but two of them, M31: A Family Romance and Going Native, are among the best of the last century. Wright is an unpredictable author with an unwavering commitment to the surreal; you get the feeling he couldn't write a straight story even if he wanted to. And it's pretty clear he's never wanted to.

Tightrope, the latest book from New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and former Times business editor Sheryl WuDunn, starts off with a horror story.

Dee Knapp, an Oregon woman, is awakened by her drunken husband, who demands that she make him dinner. Angry that she's not moving fast enough for him, her husband punches her, then chases her out of the house with a rifle. She's forced to spend the night in the fields around their house, hoping her husband doesn't hurt any of their five children.

When 15-year-old Natasha first arrives at her new boarding school, she has no idea what to expect. The daughter of a nouveau-riche Russian oligarch, she's been sent to continue her education in England. It doesn't take her long to learn the rules: The girls at the school can only use the Internet for an hour a day. YouTube is strictly off limits. And, most crucially, they must remain thin or risk becoming a social pariah: "Your thighs should not touch each other anywhere, not even if you were born like that."

It's not what anyone who plans to get married soon wants to hear, but there are a million ways a wedding can go wrong. Missing rings, late-delivered cakes, drunken relatives: the potential for disaster is always there, just a slip of the mind or a bad decision away. But for Evie, the narrator of Crissy Van Meter's Creatures, there are two problems with her upcoming ceremony: A dead whale has washed up on the island where she lives, and the smell is less than ideal. Also, her fiance, a fisherman, has gone to work on a boat in a storm, and is presently unaccounted for.

It's about time that disaffected teenagers get the credit they've long deserved and never wanted. Sure, they can be kind of frustrating, with their hair-trigger eye-rolling reflex and grunted monosyllabic responses to any possible question, but they're also likely single-handedly keeping the French-poetry-collection and black-coffee industries alive. (And if there's a thriving black market for now-banned clove cigarettes — a staple of depressed and pretentious teens back when I was one of them — they're probably responsible for that, too.)

"Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast," sang Steely Dan in their 1973 hit "Reelin' in the Years," "So you grab a piece of something that you think is going to last."

If you believe that 1973 marked the real end of the 1960s as a cultural era, it's a fitting sentiment — the year was the last gasp of an age of possibility, when sunny idealism gave way to economic recession and cynical disillusionment.

Or as Andrew Grant Jackson writes in his fascinating new book, 1973: Rock at the Crossroads:

College and professional sports have a way of dominating the national headlines. But in some parts of America, high school athletics have become local obsessions.

In Pennsylvania, fans flock to school wrestling matches, while in Texas, high school football teams routinely sell out some of the state's biggest stadiums.

Take it from someone who's lived in the capital of Texas for 15 years: There are worse places to spend Christmas than Austin. You don't have to worry about getting snowed in; there's never too much distance between you and a bar; and you can always amuse yourself by playing games like "Is that guy walking down Guadalupe Street dressed like an elf because it's Christmas or just because this is Austin?"

If you ask a college basketball fan to name the best squads of all time, chances are you'll hear some of the same names: the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, the 1990-91 Duke Blue Devils, the 1966-67 UCLA Bruins.

Somewhat forgotten to younger basketball aficionados, though, are the 1949-50 City College of New York Beavers, who became the first and only team to win both the National Invitation Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

In 1973, psychologist and Stanford University professor David Rosenhan published a journal article that shook the world of psychiatry to its core.

"On Being Sane in Insane Places" was the result of a study in which eight people without mental illness got themselves admitted to psychiatric institutions — Rosenhan wanted to see whether mental health professionals could actually distinguish between psychologically well people and those with mental illnesses.

It's always election season in America, which means that even people who only casually keep up with politics are bound to know the names of some of the organizations that influence our democracy.

You don't have to be a political junkie to know the names of the NRA, Institute for Legislative Action, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, American Civil Liberties Union or the Club for Growth PAC.

The title story of Mimi Lok's short story collection, Last of Her Name, opens with Karen, a 12-year-old British girl, lying battered on the floor of her bedroom. She's attempted to recreate a stunt from her favorite martial-arts television program, but failed to intuit the role that special effects played in the scene. "It seemed so effortless, so elegant," Lok writes. "How was Karen supposed to know that her slight, ninety-pound self would be enough to send the wardrobe crashing to the floor?"

Girl, the newest novel from Edna O'Brien, starts out with one of the most powerful passages the legendary Irish author has ever written. "I was a girl once, but not any more," the narrator, Maryam, says. "I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school."

"The fire you like so much in me / Is the mark of someone adamantly free," Liz Phair declared in her 1993 song "Strange Loop."

The song, which appeared on her debut studio album, Exile in Guyville, was a fitting introduction to the Chicago-raised singer-songwriter ⁠— Phair was serving notice that she was unwilling to be anyone other than herself, and if people didn't approve of her sexually frank and defiantly profane lyrics, or her lo-fi sensibility, they were more than welcome to listen to something else.

It's hard to think of another writer with as much Lone Star credibility as Stephen Harrigan. The Austin-based writer contributed to Texas Monthly magazine for decades, and his best-known book, The Gates of the Alamo, is widely considered to be the best novel about the epic battle ever written.

Harrigan, essentially, is to Texas literature what Willie Nelson is to Texas music.

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